Looking back at 2009, pessimistic political economists would probably describe it as the year of the recession while optimists would remember it as the year of the stimulus packages.
Similarly, pessimistic strategists would probably describe this year—if not the decade—as a period of the demise of multilateralism and a new world disorder, while optimists would probably call it the time of the rise of plurilateralism and the tentative emergence of a new world order.
The pessimists would probably describe it as an orchestra hopelessly out of tune in the absence of a conductor, while the optimists would call it an orchestra warming up and eagerly awaiting a new conductor to begin the recital. In either case, both would agree that this period of transition is neither predictable nor desirable, but will be critical in determining the evolving new world order.
While the outcome of this transition still remains uncertain, several characteristics of this period are already evident. First, as one noted American strategist observed, in this period of flux there is also uncertainty about status quo itself. While the old status quo clearly no longer exists, the new order has yet to be established.
Thus, as a corollary, countries and leaders can be divided into two categories: those who are desperately seeking to maintain the status quo that existed during the Cold War (particularly the traditionalists in the US and Russia and to a lesser degree the other three unelected members of the United Nations Security Council, or UNSC) and those that are trying to create a new status quo (particularly the pragmatists in countries such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa and to a lesser degree Germany and Japan, all of whom can only be elected to the UNSC for a two-year term). Of course, this is complicated by the fact that both old and new status quo leaders exist, and compete, in almost every country.
Second, in the past, the new order was often determined by a rising power challenging an established power through military means. However, the presence of nuclear weapons in the hands of all the established powers and some of the rising powers has rendered the redistribution of power through war almost obsolete. The only option for the challenger is to convince the status quoist to transfer or share power through peaceful means. Thus, China’s assertion that its rise will be peaceful is not a choice, it is the only option that Beijing can exercise. In this context, the India-US nuclear deal is probably the best example of the efforts and challenges in transferring power through peaceful and cooperative means.
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Third, in the absence of war, power can also be sought to be redistributed through negotiated multilateral treaties. However, almost none of the existing multilateral treaties have been particularly effective or flexible in facilitating the peaceful accommodation of an aspirant power into the existing system. In fact, most of the multilateral agreements, such as the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, have ended up reinforcing the old status quo. This is, perhaps, a reason why not a single new multilateral agreement has entered into force in the past decade. It is also unlikely to succeed in the future without the establishment of a new world order.
Another alternative would have been to reform the existing institutions of global governance based around the UN system to accommodate the aspirant powers but, with the notable exceptions of the newly created UN Peacebuilding Commission and the Human Rights Commission, this has proved to be impossible.
Finally, with multilateralism stymied, bilateral efforts providing mixed results at best and unilateral efforts and declarations challenged by the old status quoist powers, ad hoc plurilateral approaches—when select countries come together address a specific issue—have emerged as the only effective means to manage this period of transition and lay the foundation for a new world order. The best example of this approach is undoubtedly the Group of Twenty (G20) established to address global financial and economic challenges.
Can the G20 provide the basis for the new world order? Clearly, the G20 is the most effective instrument of the moment to address the immediate financial and economic crisis. However, there are three serious drawbacks. First, the selection of countries in this grouping is exclusive rather than inclusive and goes against the principles of universality that countries like India have promoted.
Second, the G20 is much too unwieldy to manage all global governance and peace and security issues that can only be effectively addressed by a much smaller and select group of no more than four-five countries.
Third, while G20 countries are best suited to address the ongoing financial and economic crisis, they are not necessarily the right set of countries to address all other global challenges, such as climate change or cyber security.
In fact, it is feasible to think of a set of 20 countries to specifically address each of these issues separately. Thus, an N-20 could address non-proliferation issues while a C-20 could include all the counties critical to tackle climate change and the IT-20 could work together ensure global cyber security.
The attractiveness of the plurilateral 20 model is that this can only be temporary groupings to address immediate issues and form the basis for the establishment of the new world order.
Eventually, the new world order would have to be underpinned by multilateral treaties and agreements that would have to be freely negotiated and universally binding.
W. Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. he writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.
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